Interview: Ruth Davidson, politician

Scottish Conservative Leader Ruth Davidson pictured at her home in Glasgow. Pic Ian Rutherford
Scottish Conservative Leader Ruth Davidson pictured at her home in Glasgow. Pic Ian Rutherford
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Young, not posh and not especially wealthy, Ruth Davidson is a new breed of Tory. But does she have the steel to do battle with Salmond over independence and stay true to herself? Asks Peter Ross

W hen I told people I was going to interview Ruth Davidson they threw up their hands in horror and said they wouldn't do her job for the world. What they meant was they wouldn't want to be in charge of a party, the Scottish Conservatives, that remains unpopular in this country; they wouldn't want the United Kingdom to break up on their watch; and most of all, they wouldn't want to stand up every week in Holyrood and get mauled by Alex Salmond, a man who appears to regard fresh opposition leaders with the same mix of amusement and appetite that, one imagines, a lion must feel toward newborn gazelles.

Yet Davidson, when we meet at her home in Glasgow, seems quite blithe about all this. She admits to a sleepless night before her debut at First Minister’s Questions, which took place on 10 November, her 33rd birthday, but says – not unconvincingly – that she enjoys “the gladiatorial aspect”. She seems energised rather than petrified by the fight to save the Union. And as for turning around the fortunes of the Tories in Scotland, “I’m very humbled that I was picked as leader of the party, and I’m very aware that there is an awful lot of expectation from me, but I’m going to strain every sinew to make sure I don’t let anyone down.”

She is a petite, gamine woman with short, dark hair whose manner is what might be called focus-group-affable, all practised smiles and little self-deprecating jokes, until she is asked a question she does not like, for example – as we shall see – about being gay, at which point out comes a basilisk glare. Michael Forsyth, meaning it as a great compliment, once said Davidson had the balls of Margaret Thatcher, and there are times during this interview when one can see what he means.

Davidson says she does not lose her temper easily, but there are flashes of real anger when asked about the nationalist MSP and fellow former journalist Joan McAlpine’s recent comments that the leaders of the unionist parties were “anti-Scottish” for seeking to oppose the SNP’s proposed timing for the independence referendum. “I’ve lived and worked here my whole life,” Davidson says.

“I am a regular in the stands at Hampden and Murrayfield. I did part of my degree in Scottish history and literature. I don’t know how much more Scottish I can be. I think that we walk taller and shout louder and stand stronger for being part of the United Kingdom, and to say that makes me anti my own country is offensive.”

Davidson lives in the most affluent part of the West End of Glasgow with a Border collie called Frankie and her partner Saskia Halcrow, whose blessing she sought and received last July before deciding to run for the Tory leadership. There are photographs of Ruth and Saskia (and Frankie) on the mantelpiece, but questions about this significant other – I am warned in advance – are “a no-go area”. Saskia, who is, by all accounts, a data analyst, a vegetarian and a Green voter, is not at all keen on the public spotlight and will not, one assumes, be Davidson’s ‘secret weapon’ on the campaign trail as Norma Major was for John. Neither will she be another SamCam, or indeed SasDav. She appears during this interview in informal asides – “My missus will kill me if the place looks messy” – but otherwise remains a private individual.

Their flat, which is rented (“I’d love to be able to afford it, but we’re a long way from that; we’re saving for a deposit, but it turns out we’re not any good at saving”), forms part of what at one time would have been a very grand house indeed. It is still pretty grand, all original wood panelling and cornicing, but decorated with some unorthodox touches. You wonder what the rich merchant or Victorian industrialist who once lived here might have made of the Banksy and Jasper John prints on the walls, or of the pool table (albeit covered with good Tory blue baize) in the front room. The place, indeed, could be read as a decent working metaphor for what Davidson’s leadership brings to the Scottish Conservatives: a veneer of modernity and a layer of liberalism laid over an oak-solid base of old-fashioned values.

Davidson grew up in two very traditional small Scottish towns – first Selkirk, in the Borders, and then, from the age of five, Lundin Links, in Fife. She recalls the views across the Forth to the Bass Rock and the somnolent sweep of the lighthouse beams at night. She laughs long and hard at a question about her education, noting that “Buckhaven High is quite a long way from being a private school. It takes its pupil base from what I believe is euphemistically called a socially depressed area, and it had all the attendant problems that go with that of drugs and violence and all the rest of it, but my teachers were amazing”.

Her father, Dougie, himself the son of a factory worker and an auxiliary nurse, came originally from Castlemilk – hardly a Tory heartland – and left school at 16. By the time Ruth, his second daughter, was born, he was working as a junior manager in the textile industry, though he later became a successful businessman involved with whisky exports. It sounds like classic lad o’ pairts stuff, and a great example to an ambitious daughter. “My parents were small ‘c’ conservatives,” says Davidson. “They would have voted Conservative, but they weren’t party members. They are part of the working class vote that we used to have in Glasgow.”

And will have again if she gets her way. Davidson, a former BBC reporter, joined the Conservative Party as recently as 2008, and was blooded a year later as a candidate in the by-election for Glasgow North-East, a constituency that has experienced enormous problems with poverty and addiction. She contested the same area in the general election of 2010, and was informed – as she chapped doors and canvassed voters – that no Conservative candidate had bothered to do so for decades.

This, she reasons, is a way forward for her party – do not cede any seat to Labour, which has done little to alleviate the disadvantages of the families living in these socialist strongholds. She intends, therefore, to end the fielding of so-called ‘paper’ candidates – those who stand for election in name only. The Tories, after all, in 1955 became the only party ever to win a majority of the vote in Scotland, and Davidson believes that – given time, perhaps as long as a decade – she can make them, once again, attractive to the Scottish mainstream. “You don’t represent a nation if you only represent one strata of a nation,” she says. “I’ve never thought about the Conservatives as only being a party for posh people. It isn’t, and nor should it ever be.”

She is in no doubt about the size of the task ahead of her. The Scottish Conservatives are a remnant, a rump. They have just 15 MSPs out of 129, a single MP (one fewer, as has been observed, than the number of pandas in Scotland) and a membership of 8,500. Davidson herself adds to these grim statistics by noting that in 1992, by no means a high point for Conservatism in Scotland, they won 25 per cent of the vote, but by 2011 they polled only 12.5 per cent. “Our vote essentially halved in 19 years. You don’t come back from that overnight. This is a journey I have to take the party – and a significant proportion of the Scottish voters – on with me. I’m here for the long haul.”

Davidson has a toughness, a thrawnness, no doubt. She knows what it is to struggle. When she was five years old she was hit by a lorry while crossing the street and came close to dying. “I broke my leg, fractured my pelvis, crushed my femoral artery, severed the nerve to the front of my leg and lost huge amounts of blood.” The reconstructive surgery on her leg was radical, she says. She spent time in a whole-body cast and had to relearn how to walk.

The whole experience must have been traumatising and frightening, but Davidson makes light of it. “My legs are still a bit squint, and my hips are a bit squint, and I’ve got a leg shorter than another and a foot shorter than the other, but it has never really stopped me from doing anything.”

In order to get the Tories back on their feet, Davidson plans a recruiting drive. She knows they work, as she herself joined the party following David Cameron’s 2008 clarion call for candidates. She knows, too, that her own example suggests strongly that one needn’t be anyone’s clichéd idea of a Tory in order to join or support the party. She is young, non-posh, not especially wealthy (she drives a second-hand Kia called Kenny), female, gay and – though she dislikes the term for its association with Ed Miliband – a fluent speaker of ‘human’; so if Ruth Davidson can lead the Conservatives, the thinking goes, then surely anyone can vote for them?

There is also a political advantage in the fact that Davidson is untainted by Thatcherism. As the recent stooshie around The Iron Lady has shown, Margaret Thatcher still provokes much bitterness in Scotland, and doubtless her toxic legacy has continued to poison the electoral prospects of the Conservatives. Davidson, however, was but six months old when Thatcher came to power, and was leaving primary school as the PM left Number 10. She cannot, therefore, be blamed for the poll tax or the end of coal and steel. “I think perhaps my relative youth – though let’s not get carried away, I’m almost in my mid-30s – does allow people to look at the Conservative Party differently and listen to what we’re saying now.”

But what, exactly, is she saying? Earlier this month she gave the first in a series of speeches that will set out the values of the Scottish Conservatives, as it is Davidson’s belief that the public have no idea what the party stands for. The speech emphasised thrift and graft, and urged Scots that “if we want to prosper, we are going to have to work for it, as our forefathers did”. Though Davidson did not link this thought to her own background, there can be no doubt that it is rooted in her own personal experience, in what she saw within her own family.

Hers was an upbringing in which effort was prized above achievement; the important thing was to work as hard as you could. Community was also important (her mother was a great rattler of tins for deserving causes) and so was faith. Davidson was raised in the Church of Scotland and for a time in her late teens taught Sunday school. She also attended evening services at a nearby Baptist church.

How important is her faith to her now? Does it still shape her values? “Yeah, I think in some ways it does. Doing this job, I don’t get to church as much as I would like. I am still a member of the church. I have actually just moved my lines to another church because I moved quite recently to this house. So I go when I can.” She pauses. “To be honest, I find faith quite a personal issue and would prefer not to talk too much about it.”

What about the ordination of gay ministers? Is she in favour of that? “That’s a tough one,” she says. She thinks it was right that the Reverend Scott Rennie, a gay man living with his partner, remained as minister of Queen’s Cross Church in Aberdeen, as that was what his congregation wanted. “A number of faith-based organisations in Scotland, not just my own church, have some way to go before they accept the ordination of gay ministers. However, I don’t believe being gay diminishes your faith or your service in any way.”

The Scottish Government intends to introduce legislation that would legalise gay marriage, but it is thought likely that, following campaigning by the Church of Scotland and others, the new law would ban the ceremonies from taking place in churches. Davidson, for her part, agrees that churches should not be compelled to carry out same-sex ceremonies. But for herself – a gay woman of faith – wouldn’t she like to get married in the place she worships? “Uh, well, there’s some complexities with me because my partner’s not religious, so it’s not such a simple question,” she says. “I support same-sex marriage. I want to see the bill that is brought before parliament because it will have to be very thoughtfully written in order to make sure there aren’t huge parts of Scottish civic society that are alienated.”

How, I ask, did you reconcile your sexuality with your faith? Was that a difficult thing to do? Suddenly, I get the basilisk glare. “I’m hoping this entire interview isn’t going to be about my sexuality.”

I’ve only asked you three questions about it out of a number so far, I tell her, and I’m trying to relate it to matters in the public sphere. These are issues that are swirling around Scotland, and so I think it is valid to ask. “Sure. As long as you understand I don’t read an awful lot about other political leaders’ religious faith in magazine articles. I wonder if they get asked the same questions. Or about their sexuality.”

I would certainly ask – indeed have asked – politicians about their faith. And as for sexuality, Davidson is the first openly gay leader of a mainstream political party in the UK. That in itself is noteworthy. Moreover, she leads a party which, rightly or wrongly, has often been perceived as homophobic. “I’m not sure whether that is the public perception,” she says. “We have more gay MPs at Westminster than Labour and the Liberal Democrats combined. The party has just elected me as their leader in Scotland. I think you are asserting that people think the Tories are homophobic. I’m not entirely sure that’s true.” OK. But will she answer my question about reconciling her faith and sexuality? She sighs heavily. “There are questions that you ask yourself. I think that I can reconcile and have reconciled my sexuality with my faith.”

And what were the questions you asked yourself? “Let’s move on.”

We do. I ask about Paul McBride, the QC who quit the Conservatives shortly after Davidson succeeded Annabel Goldie to the leadership, saying, “All they have done is replace one very nice woman, under whom the party declined, with another woman, who probably isn’t as nice, is going to get less votes and is supported by only two out of her 15 MSP colleagues.”

And McBride is not the only high-profile supporter to have jumped ship. Only the day before this interview, it emerged that Sir Jack Harvie, who had raised around £16 million for the Scottish Conservatives, has decided to stand down. Both losses are damaging, but McBride’s comments felt personal. How hurtful did Davidson find them? “Paul is a man of strong opinions and he’s entitled to those opinions,” is all she will say on the matter, which is about as far from answering the question as you can get.

That’s the really disappointing thing about Davidson. She gives the impression of being a breath of fresh air, but there’s something decidedly stale and politics-as-usual about such evasiveness. She may have Lady Gaga on her iPod and a Wii Fit beneath the telly, but she will need to demonstrate real substance, charisma and radical change if she is ever to tempt the Scottish voters to end their love affair with the SNP or to prevent them from returning to the arms of Labour.

And for all that she has given herself a decade to revive the Tories, she will have to work quicker than that if she is to win the argument over Scottish independence. No doubt it means a lot to her – “I feel 100 per cent Scottish but I feel British too, and I don’t like the idea that Alex Salmond gets to take that away from me” – but does she really, truly have what it takes to stop him?

“It feels like I’m doing the job I’m supposed to be doing,” she says.

That may be so, and a sense of personal destiny – though she would disavow that phrase – will serve her well during the months and years ahead. But, having met Ruth Davidson, or at least the part she is willing to show, I am not convinced she is the leader destined to help the Tories get over their blues. Perhaps no one is. However, Like Thatcher, she at least has the balls to try, and it will be fascinating to see her do so.